Vera Institute for Justice employees during an April tour of their work-space in the Orleans Parish Prison Intake and Processing Center: (l-r) Lisa Simpson, Darrick Holmes, Elaina Camacho, and Jon Wool. Photo by Tom Gogola

New Orleans’ criminal justice commissioner said Wednesday he wants to more than  triple the city money provided to the Vera Institute for Justice’s pretrial services program at Orleans Parish Prison.

The program is designed to help assess the flight risk and danger to the community that an arrestee poses. The organization’s recommendation is forwarded to the magistrate, who considers it while setting a bond amount.

Commissioner James Carter was one of seven speakers giving favorable reviews of the insitute’s relatively young program during a discussion before the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.

Carter said the city will put $623,000 into the proposed 2013 budget.for Vera.

The nascent program got off the ground in April with a city budget of $200,000. An additional $463,000 in one-time seed money was provided by the U.S. Department of Justice. That money was used to help design the program, a process that began in early 2011, said Jon Wool, the Vera Institute’s New Orleans director.

Wool said the increase from the city will help Vera expand its reach to include arrestees brought into the system on state misdemeanor charges.

Vera would be able to at least double the number of assessments it is now providing to judges, Wool said.

“The sub-issue here is the people who’d be most affected by pre-screening are state misdemeanors,” said Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Commissioner Jonathon Friedman.

Vera interviews an arrestee to determine such things as employment status, ties to the community, criminal history, and other factors that give fuller picture to judges.

The assessments aren’t binding and are only designed to give judges the fullest possible picture of a defendant’s flight risk and danger to the community before their first appearance.

“It’s not a ‘release-from-jail’ program” Vera’s Lisa Simpson said.

“The final release decision is mine,” said Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Magistrate Gerald Hansen. “Sometimes their assessment is low,” he said, “and I use my assessment with theirs.”

Hansen said he was “very pleased” with Vera’s efforts so far.

Wool said Vera is now assessing about 60 to 65 percent of all felony cases coming through the Orleans Parish Prison.

The extra city money, Wool said, will let Vera hire staff to expand its hours to assess all the felony-charged arrestees coming through the system.

Wool and Simpson provided some hard numbers to the council summing up the program’s first three months of operation, from April 30 through Aug. 3.

Vera reported that it had performed 928 assessments.  Of those, 102 defendants were released on their own recognizance.

Another 45 were released on personal-surety bonds, which are unsecured, non-financial third-party bonds. Further, 118 defendants were release on bonds of less than $2,500, which require payment of $325 to a bondsman, according to the Vera documents provided to the council.

The Vera assessment rates defendants as low, medium or high risk. Of the 928 people who were assessed, 63 percent were deemed to be low risk; 34 percent were medium risk; and 3 percent were high risk.

Vera already is expanding the program this year with a $300,000 grant spread over three years provided by Baptist Community Ministries.

Wool will use that grant to hire someone to supervise arrestees who are released but would otherwise sit in jail without such judge-approved supervision.

The speakers gathered at City Hall all expressed support for the program, in varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Maj. Rochelle Lee, speaking for the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office, said she was initially “really negative on this. I was from the old school. But it’s gotten me to accept it. It’s working out excellent,” Lee said.

Carter made a point to mention the city’s homicide crisis and noted that the assessments would also give judges the discretion to issue “harsh bonds” in order to keep people accused of violent felonies off the street.

“This is an effort to focus on risk,” Wool said, “both at the high and the low end. Both ends are equally of concern.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...